Hitting the Books: That time San Francisco's suburbs sued the airport for being too loud

NIMBYism has a long and storied history in the Bay Area.

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San Francisco has long sought to square its deeply-held progressive ideals with the region's need for tangible, technological progress. SFO international airport, which opened for business in 1959 and has undergone significant expansion and modernization in the years since, is a microcosm of that struggle. On one hand, the Bay Area likely wouldn't be the commercial, technical, and cultural hub that it is today if not for connectivity the airport provides. On the other hand, its installation and operation has had very real consequences for the local environment and the region's populace.

Dr. Eric Porter, Professor of History, History of Consciousness, and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, examines how San Francisco International came to be and the challenges it will face in a climate changing 21st century in his latest work, A People's History of SFO: The Making of the Bay Area and an Airport. Porter's connection to the topic is a personal one. "My grandfather worked as a skycap there beginning in the 1940s," Porter wrote in a recent UC Press blog. "Carrying white people’s luggage and the racial baggage that came with it was servile but good-paying work."

a split image, top half is color and a background of clouds with the book title and author name in block letters. the lower half is a black and white photo of a Pan Am flight WAY too low over the 101 freeway -- like, you know that one famous airport where planes come through final approach about 40 feet above the deck over a tourist beach? It's like that except from the 1960s and, instead of a beach, it's rush hour traffic. jiminy christmas, who thought this was a good idea
University of California Press

Excerpted from A People's History of SFO: The Making of the Bay Area and an Airport by Eric Porter, published by University of California Press

The Politics of Jet Noise

As Black skycaps protested changes to their working conditions during the spring and summer of 1970, a different group of activists, largely white and operating primarily as homeowners rather than as workers, were engaged in their own SFO-focused struggle. The issue was jet noise, a long-standing nuisance that had become more unbearable as the airport grew and as environmentalists and government agencies deemed it a form of pollution that could have detrimental effects on human well-being. That November, after months of unsuccessfully lobbying airport and government officials for changes to SFO flight operations, thirty-two property owners from South San Francisco, a then largely white working- and middle-class suburb located northwest of the airport, filed claims with the San Francisco Airport Commission seeking compensation for the disruptions caused by jets taking off over their neighborhoods. The commission denied the claims, so the following February the South San Franciscans filed a $320,000 lawsuit ($10,000 per plaintiff) against the City and County of San Francisco on the grounds that jet noise had “diminished and damaged” the “reasonable use and quiet enjoyment of their property.” Subsequently, ten individuals from the tonier suburbs of Woodside and Portola Valley, located southeast of the airport, filed their own lawsuit, requesting the same per-person damages caused by noise from aircraft on approach to SFO.

These lawsuits, ultimately settled by the Airport Commission’s promise to institute a $5 million noise mitigation program, were among the many antinoise actions undertaken by outraged SFO neighbors following the introduction of jet aircraft to the facility in 1959. Their communities had grown in symbiotic relationship with SFO in ways physical, social, political, and economic. Jet sounds helped to compose their soundscapes, or acoustic environments, offering their inhabitants references through which they conceptualized and lived their urban experiences. The sounds oriented local residents toward the sky, providing a generalized sense of being urban, while also defining their relationships to SFO through the horizontal positioning of homes, workplaces, recreation sites, schools, and other places they inhabited in relation to takeoff and landing vectors and the facility itself.

How people experienced this relationship to place via jet sounds — whether positive, negative, or ambivalent—was affected by people’s proximity to such sounds, the frequency and duration of them, their relative audibility in relation to other components of the soundscape, and the social and political meanings they were conditioned over time to hear in them. When Bay Area residents heard jet sounds as “noise,” it was often simply because they were loud and profoundly disruptive. But at other moments jet noise was a more subjective, socially determined “unwanted sound.” Such determination happened, in part, as anthropologist Marina Peterson’s work on LAX and its environs helps us understand, because of what these insistent sounds had come to symbolize as they catalyzed relationships among an expanding ensemble of individuals and community groups; government officials, agencies, and regulations; activists and their organizations; scientists and other researchers; the airport and its operations; and a broad set of social, political, and economic forces.

Some local residents were willing to tolerate the noise. It was an inconvenience to be put up with in exchange for the benefits of living, working, or doing business near the airport. Noise itself, and the impunity to make it, might have signified the financial and political interests of airlines, airport officials, and other powerful interests, but these entities offered something (jobs, construction contracts, airport employee spending, convenient travel, and so on) in return. For others, however, this loud component of the soundscape signified differently on the pros and cons of living near the airport as well as on the relationships in which they were immersed. Jet noise, in other words, could be heard as a manifestation of the forms of power that defined the regional colonial present, and it raised the question of how local residents would live out their attachments to them.

Anti–jet noise activism by individuals, homeowner associations, political figures, environmental groups, and others around SFO usually reflected their relative degrees of privilege and aspiration as mostly white beneficiaries of accumulated colonial power in the region. Yet their activism simultaneously articulated critiques, explicit and implicit, of the ways elements of the power—economic, legal, bureaucratic, and so on—that lay behind the noise had diminished human thriving in the region more generally. Airport and local government officials, labor unions, and others who opposed, deflected, or sought to incorporate strategically the goals of these activists also expressed or otherwise engaged multiple forms of social, economic, and bureaucratic power while seeking to advance or protect their own accumulated interests.

The activists had some successes. SFO and its surrounding communities eventually became less noisy because of changes in aircraft technology (especially engine technology) and also because the FAA, airport operators, civic leaders, and others eventually started to listen to anti-noise activists and made significant efforts to mitigate jet noise. But jets continued to generate noise at and near SFO, and some people are still complaining about the problem today. Still, the history of antinoise activism around SFO—the version in this chapter runs from the late 1950s into the 1980s — is still worth exploring because it makes audible some of the complex ways that challenging and reproducing power in the mid- and late twentieth-century regional colonial present occurred through the synergies, conflicts, and missed opportunities for cooperation among largely white homeowner, environmentalist, and worker movements when they collided with SFO as manifestation of broader economic transformations and modes of governmental infrastructure development and resource stewardship.

• • •

Aircraft noise had been the subject of intermittent complaints in the Bay Area going back to the early days of aviation. Concern that loud air planes might depress real estate prices was among the factors that led to the shuttering of San Francisco’s early civilian airstrip in the Marina District. Noise was initially not a problem around Mills Field. Aircraft of the 1920s and 1930s were not terribly loud, and there was little residential development nearby. That began to change after World War II as commercial air operations at what became SFO increased, aircraft grew in size and sound-generating capability, and residential neighborhoods encroached upon the airport. As was the case elsewhere in the United States, growing local concern about airport noise dovetailed with fears of aircraft crashing into homes or businesses below, as happened near the Newark and Idlewild airports in late 1951 and early 1952. Two pre–jet age incidents of aircraft developing engine trouble after taking off over South San Francisco increased the level of anxiety about that community’s proximity to SFO in particular. Complaints, emanating primarily from five surrounding cities, grew exponentially with the arrival of jet aircraft in April 1959. Residents of San Bruno, Daly City, and, most vocally, South San Francisco were primarily affected by aircraft departing to the northwest from runway 28, oriented to allow aircraft to take off into the wind through the “gap” between San Bruno Mountain and the Santa Cruz Mountains. South San Franciscans formed neighborhood jet noise committees, but their complaints were often channeled through city councilman and later mayor Leo Ryan and City attorney John Noonan. The two officials began a dialogue with airport representatives, pilots, airlines, and federal officials about the coming jet noise problem in 1957, commissioned an engineer’s report on the matter, and stepped up their efforts after the jets arrived.

As complaints from South San Francisco increased, and as technological advancements permitted more takeoffs in crosswinds or slight tail winds, flights were shifted to the intersecting, perpendicular runway 1 in an effort to redistribute aircraft noise. This made things more difficult for residents of Millbrae and northeastern Burlingame and especially for those living in Bayside Manor, a Millbrae neighborhood established in 1943, across the Bayshore Freeway from the end of the runway. Bayside Manor residents were primarily affected by the “jet blast” (i.e., noise, vibration, and fumes) from aircraft as they began their takeoffs just seven hundred feet away from the edge of the development. Residents organized primarily through the Bayside Manor Improvement Association, formed in 1948, which had for several years been fighting the placement of industrial facilities on undeveloped land near their subdivision.

Local residents experienced a variety of dramatic and disruptive effects from jet engine-produced sound waves. According to a Millbrae woman, “We thought the old planes were bad enough. But jets are terrible. The house shakes, light bulbs burn out from the vibration, and we can’t hear TV programs when the planes are taking off.” People also complained about frightened and crying children, sleepless nights, distractions in schools, disrupted church and funeral services, interrupted in-person and telephone conversations, jumping phonograph needles, the inability to entertain outside, and actual physical damage to their property from sonic vibrations: cracked walls, stucco, chimneys, fire places, gas lines, and windows, as well as dishes breaking after falling from shelves. They worried about falling home values and about their physical and mental well-being. Some were exhausted. Others complained of headaches, earaches, temporary hearing loss, and other ailments. According to one petition, some South San Franciscans were “in a constant state of anxiety and have had to undergo medical treatment for nervous conditions said to have been induced by the noises created by the jet aircraft and the anxiety due to the passage of jet aircraft over their homes.”

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